Considering seminary? Get ready for the unexpected.
There are things I wasn’t taught in seminary. But there was plenty I did learn — some of them unexpected.
By Amy Butler
I could write a column about all the things I didn’t learn in seminary.
Oh, wait. I already did that. Several times, in fact.
It’s a great topic, because I think there’s not a pastor on the planet who hasn’t opined on the matter. Also, I find many situations that make the topic pretty humorous.
For example, I did not learn in seminary what the pastor should do when two armed police officers walk into the sanctuary during worship and arrest a worshiper. (The peace of the Lord be with you?) I also did not learn what to do if every available and reasonable attempt has been made to eliminate the rat in the church library but it has become abundantly clear that the rat is smarter than the entire church staff combined. I also did not learn how to proceed when the fire alarm goes off in the middle of the sermon.
I can talk for hours about what I didn’t learn, so I hadn’t given much thought at all to the valuable things I did learn during my theological training. Because of that, I was caught off guard this week when someone asked me to talk about what I learned in seminary.
In the days since I was asked that thought-provoking question, I’ve been trying to articulate for myself the valuable lessons my seminary experience taught me. Three semesters of biblical Greek did not make the list, but here are some lessons that did.
Lesson one: Human relationships are messy. During seminary I lived and studied in a community with people from all over the world, each one of us holding different and ardent convictions about faith, culture and life in general. The conflicts and misunderstandings in that setting were relentless and often painfully touched core values and deeply held convictions. Both inside the classroom and out my view of the world was questioned and challenged.
What a hard learning process this was for me. And what a gift it was, stretching my view of the world and helping me learn that critical lesson any pastor has to know, or he’s sure to quit before too long. Human relationships are hard; they’re not always fun. And investment in healthy community is worth the effort.
Seminary taught me to look at the world through a theological lens. Where else would I have read the amazing books I read, heard the perspectives of wise thinkers and been given the tools to frame the human experience with a spiritual construct? All the (many) youth group retreats I attended in high school just wouldn’t have prepared me for moderating an ongoing dialogue between experience and text, revelation and conviction. I find it also helps with credibility if you use some really fancy theological words when people expect you to speak authoritatively on matters of spiritual import.
I learned at seminary that people in helping professions often need help. So many of us are drawn to work that heals because we are seeking healing ourselves, and seminary is a great place to watch that dynamic lived out in healthy and extraordinarily unhealthy expressions. Some of the most wounded and unhealthy people I’ve ever encountered I met in seminary; seminary is a microcosm of human frailty, and it’s easy to see who handles this reality in a way that’s healthy — and who doesn’t.
One of the most important lessons I learned in seminary is that authentic faith is usually more about questions than answers. I showed up at seminary, as many do, with a shiny, comprehensive understanding of God and the world and my life, and I left with a faith that was a bit less shiny and much less comprehensive. I learned that the life of faith is woven through with threads of mystery and doubt, and that authentic faith is far less about knowing all the answers than it is about finding the courage to lean into the questions. This lesson has been such a gift that I’m very suspicious when I meet seminary students whose experience has not resulted in some kind of crisis or reconstruction of personal faith.
Here’s a shout out to Frederich Schleiermacher, whose dense (and long) systematic theology kept me company many long nights. At seminary I learned from engaging difficult work like his that training well for ministry should be rigorous; it should demand our committed and excellent attention. I don’t know that I’d thought the seminary experience would be all prayer partners and praise choruses, but I certainly did not fully anticipate the high level of academic scholarship my professors required of me. I’m grateful they did, because their insistence on excellence taught me that the work of ministry demands no less. This work we say we’re called to do should never be done with lukewarm enthusiasm or half-hearted effort.
My seminary experience perpetually surprised me, teaching me lessons I didn’t even know I needed to learn, inviting me to think in new and surprising ways, challenging my assumptions, deepening my faith. That may have been the best lesson of all, because the adventure of faith is always inviting me to experience my life and the world around me in ways that shake me up and ask me to change.
In seminary I did not learn about downtown development or basic plumbing repair or, alas, effective rodent extermination. But given the skills and perspective I did learn, I’m pretty sure I could find a way to use the rat in the library as a powerful sermon illustration to help my people connect with God.
And one could argue that in some situations that would be a very valuable skill to have.
OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.